LOS ANGELES — Though attention inevitably shifted to Andrew Luck every time Stanford took the field a season ago, it was a well-oiled machine under first-year head coach David Shaw that ran up 11 wins before coming close to a 12th in a tantalizingly close Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
Skill, size and depth at a multitude of positions propelled the Cardinal to another 8-1 conference record and a three-overtime win at the Coliseum over a USC team that went on to outscore its next four opponents 170-69. Stanford has won eight in a row on the road, a streak that dates back to the team’s only loss in 2010.
Clearly, little dust was kicked up in the transfer of power over to a Shaw-coached team that will return enough interesting parts to lay challenge to the Pac-12 North – if only they could find a way to solve those annoying Oregon Ducks. Stanford is 0-2 against Oregon over the last two seasons, and an astounding 16-0 against the rest of the conference.
With a durable, workhorse running back among the nation’s best, enough depth, size and toughness on both lines, tight ends and at linebacker, and with a versatile fullback all combining to shelter a quarterback who enters the season as a question mark, the 2012 Cardinal are going to closely resemble some of Barry Alvarez’s final teams at Wisconsin – not a bad comparison, considering the Badgers’ 3-0 record in Pasadena over a seven-year span.
So it’s important that quarterbacks Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes understand what is expected of them.
“There should be no effort to try to be Andrew Luck, because they can’t,” Shaw said. “They can’t do it. It’s not possible.”
Instead, Stanford will rely upon its proven commodities to weather any growing pains and help grow a new quarterback into a strong ground unit that features two-time 1,000 yard rusher Stepfan Taylor, a senior, and versatile junior fullback Ryan Hewitt.
“I think we’ve got the most underrated running back in the nation,” Shaw said of Taylor, who has rushed for 2,770 yards and 27 touchdowns over his career in Palo Alto.
“The pressure’s going to be on guys that have produced, and I’m not going to ask Stefon to do anything he hasn’t done on film for two years, which is ‘been a phenomenal football player,'” Shaw said. “We just need him to continue to do it.”
After two distinguished seasons working in tandem with Luck, it’s now Taylor’s turn to be the focal part of an attack behind a line that lost David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft but should still reap the bounty of having recruited and developed some of the country’s best offensive lineman. Incoming five-star recruit Kyle Murphy is 6-foot-7 and could conceivably fight for available playing time, which should be ample amongst a group of players Shaw was confident about heading into practices in advance of their Sept. 1 opener against San Jose State. Freshman 6-7 tight end Luke Kaumatule is likely to join a mix that graduates Coby Fleener to Indianapolis along with Luck but retains depth and maintains the team’s three tight end set with Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo.
“All those guys playing at a high level will allow us to allow somebody, whoever the starting quarterback is, to grow in that role and be productive for us,” Shaw said. “We anticipate on defense we’re going to play at a high level, as well, to keep us in tight games, so that quarterback can concentrate on being efficient at doing his job.”
The defense should be the strength of the team, bolstered by a linebacking corps that includes senior and first-team All Pac-12 linebacker Chase Thomas. It’s an experienced defense that returns the same schemes for the third consecutive year, which, according to Thomas, “lets us play faster, more aggressively and, overall, it makes us a better defense.”
Shayne Skov is on the verge of returning from tearing his anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament three weeks into the 2011 season, a time when the Cardinal run defense was ranked second nationally. Skov, who also arrested for driving under the influence in February, will not play the first game of the season and will have to be at 100 percent to face Duke in Durham on Sept. 10.
“He’s not ready to play a football game yet, but he’s physically ready to do everything in the weight room, everything we’ll asked him to do on the field,” Shaw said of Skov, who has completed his rehabilitation from injury.
Skov, an All Pac-12 honorable mention and the leading tackler of a 12-1 team as a sophomore in 2010, was expected to be a candidate to leave for the NFL Draft before his injury but will return to anchor a front seven that once again should be among the best in the country at stopping the run.
“He doesn’t have to prove to us that he can come back faster than we need him to,” Shaw said of Skov. Stanford ranked third nationally in run defense a season ago and should once again be the Pac-12’s best against the run.
Junior Ben Gardner was one of only three underclassmen to crack the All Pac-12 defensive teams and should be expected to be amongst the conference’s best defensive ends while challenging Skov for the team’s lead in sacks.
A questionable secondary that will be looking to improve its 95th-ranked pass defense will be challenged against Washington, Washington State and versus Matt Barkley and USC at Stanford Stadium in the Pac-12 opener on Sept. 15, and considering the team’s unknown quarterback play, this is a group that could struggle if it falls behind by multiple scores.
The real theme of this Stanford Cardinal season does not hinge around whether they’re able to replace Luck, one of the all-time Pac-12 quarterbacking legends. There are enough quality pieces around either Nottingham or Nunes to protect and incubate their new quarterback and adapt him to their heavy ground attack.
“For us,” Shaw said, “whoever wins that starting job will be the guy that does the job well, that executes the offense, that gets us to the right protection, that gets us to the right run play, that when a guy’s open, hits him with the ball.”
Instead, the much larger question for this program will be answered by what they hope to continue to receive from the reigning Pac-12 coach of the year, who has seamlessly replaced Jim Harbaugh in immediately producing a double-digit win season and commandeering another top-10 recruiting class nationally.
While the quarterback battle is framed within a much smaller calendar, the possibility that Stanford may have unearthed another quality leader who can maintain lofty win totals in heading its football program will be amongst the Pac-12’s most interesting storylines of 2012. Eight or nine wins shouldn’t be out of the question for the Cardinal, who will enter the 2012 season as a dark horse Rose Bowl contender – that is, if they’re finally able to get past the Ducks.